"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Conference on Disarmament Stalemate Persists

Wade Boese

The latest bid to end the prolonged negotiating impasse of the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) is faltering primarily because China and Pakistan are raising objections to the March 23 proposal.

Western diplomatic sources and a UN official close to the conference indicated to Arms Control Today in May interviews that the prospects for the conference holding negotiations this year are growing dimmer as each day passes. The UN official said May 16 that there is a “definite sense of momentum being lost.”

The CD operates by consensus, and the last agreement it negotiated was the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Following the conclusion of that treaty, conference members have almost continuously clashed over negotiating priorities.

The sole exception was a few weeks in 1998 when the conference convened negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would prohibit the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons. No agreement resulted from those talks.

Renewing FMCT negotiations is a key element of the March 23 work package offered by Sri Lankan Ambassador Sarala Fernando. The package also includes less formal discussions on nuclear disarmament, prevention of an arms race in outer space, and negative security assurances, which are intended to assure states without nuclear weapons that they will not suffer nuclear attacks. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Most conference members announced support for or indicated they would not block the package before the end of the CD’s first of three annual working periods on March 30. But some delegations, most prominently China and Pakistan, said they had to wait for instructions from their capitals. Others not prepared immediately to adopt the proposal included Egypt, India, and Iran.

Aiming to get final approval for the four-item package before the CD’s second work period started May 14, Fernando proposed a special April plenary for this purpose. That meeting never occurred because some countries again said they needed more time.

China announced May 22 that the package, among other failings, does not adequately address the outer space issue. Beijing’s remedy for this perceived shortcoming is to specify that the proposed discussions on space could lead to negotiation of a treaty—an outcome staunchly opposed by Washington.

Concerned about U.S. missile defense developments, China puts higher priority on negotiations on outer space than an FMCT. Beijing reportedly has stopped fissile material production for weapons, but it has not publicly announced such a halt as have France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Although Pakistan claims to be still reviewing the package, Islamabad also raised some objections May 15. One of the diplomatic sources said May 16 that Pakistan appears intent on “killing” the proposal.

Pakistan suggested all four items in the package should be treated equally. Iran seconded this notion, an approach anathema to France and the United States. Iran, which the United States and several others allege is illicitly pursuing nuclear weapons, recently obstructed a separate conference on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (see page 23 ).

Pakistan, as well as China, argued that FMCT negotiations should aim to produce a verifiable treaty, meaning one with mechanisms to detect cheating. Pakistan’s neighbor and nuclear rival, India, endorsed the same objective May 15, but it was unclear how firmly each of the countries was making this goal a precondition for negotiations.

Most countries support a verifiable FMCT, but they are not insisting this be a declared negotiating outcome because the United States opposes such an approach. Washington asserts that an FMCT verification regime would be time consuming to negotiate, costly to implement, and ultimately imperfect, potentially impinging on the national security interests of law-abiding states while not deterring determined cheaters. Before 2004, the United States supported a verifiable FMCT. (See ACT, September 2004. )

Although Algeria and Egypt also questioned certain aspects of the March 23 proposal, some of the Western diplomatic sources implied that China’s position was key because it provides other countries cover to raise objections.

Winning consensus on the proposal, a couple of the sources said, would be further complicated if Russia follows through on President Vladimir Putin’s February pledge to submit a draft treaty to bar space weapons. Such a move might further increase pressure to elevate the outer space issue from discussions to negotiations.

All the sources pointed out that time to conduct any negotiations this year was dwindling. The second work period ends June 29, and the third and final work period begins July 30 and expires Sept. 14. Moreover, some of the last period is consumed by end-of-the-year administrative work.